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Why You Should Be Reading Outside

Published:
December 14, 2023
July 31, 2023
Learn the benefits of reading outside in nature here.|Learn the benefits of reading outside in nature here.

A few years ago, I had a friend who was in the final stages of cancer. In the months before her death, she would often ask me to go outside with her, to take a walk, chat, or drive to see flowers or mountains. She was an avid gardener, and she surrounded herself with beauty. One day, she asked if we could simply sit outside and read together.  

It was summer in Spokane, Washington, and the weather was lovely. For about an hour, we read Jane Austen in the sunlight, sitting on pale gray Adirondack chairs with birds chirping around us. It is one of those forever moments etched in my brain: a sense of calm pervaded the scene, and I remember feeling my heart fill. In that moment, I felt closer to God than I have at almost any other one in my life. 

I think often of my friend, a British Victorianist scholar, who taught me to love the outdoors in ways I never had previously.

A practice in nurturing both mind and soul

My introverted self prior to then spent most of my time indoors, but through her influence, I began to appreciate and enjoy nature with renewed eyes. Although my friend has since passed away, I still spend much time reading in the sunshine, most recently finishing the bestseller, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, as my two children ran circles around me in the backyard.  

Reading, for me, has always been meditative. My days can be filled with checklists and busyness, but once I pick up a book, I get lost in its pages. In fact, my husband keeps track of the books I have available in the house because, once I run out, a mini crisis ensues in our family. My psychological state, as embarrassing as this may sound, is directly linked to whether I have a book nearby. 

As a child, it is probably unsurprising to hear that I read outside often, having “a secret” designated reading spot in my neighborhood that was beneath a broad, leafy tree. Like what happens to many of us who grow up, until that moment with my friend, I had set aside my childhood inclination for reading outdoors, forgetting the joy the experience once held for me. 

Since that day of reading Persuasion with a breeze hitting my shoulders and a good friend by my side, I have tried to make reading outside habitual. I now realize where I read matters as much to my soul as what I read. I am not alone in this feeling. 

Science agrees — getting outside is good for you

Social scientists have discovered that spending time in nature, specifically green spaces, is associated with reduced cortisol levels, a hormone linked to stress. They have also found that exposure to natural environments can lead to increased positive emotions and a more cheerful mental outlook overall. That is, nature experiences are associated with higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction. Simply being outdoors de-stresses us and increases our happiness. 

In a similar vein, reading as an activity elicits relaxation and focus. Researchers have discovered that reading is more effective for stress reduction than listening to music or taking a walk. Reading requires focus and concentration, which can lead to a state of mindfulness. When fully engrossed in a book, readers can come to experience “flow,” a term coined by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is characterized by being completely immersed in an activity. The state brings about a total sense of absorption to the point that a person loses track of time and even their sense of self. It is thought to be one of the most fulfilling, deepest experiences a human can have. When I experience it, I feel as if I am closer to feeling God’s handprint on my life. 

Combining reading with being outdoors and experiencing flow is spiritually and emotionally moving then. With both, a person can reach unique heights of cognitive bliss that one such as myself can only suggest others try themselves if they are to understand its benefits. 

Looking at reading in nature as a form of worship

Here, it feels pertinent to bring into the conversation one of my favorite writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). I frequently return to his words when reading outdoors. First introduced to his writing in college, I was inspired by his belief as a Transcendental philosopher that nature provides a unique access to God, so long as we as humans choose to pause and appreciate the grandeur God crafted for us. Emerson’s 1836 manifesto, aptly titled “Nature,” explores the special kinship between humans, nature, and God in depth. Within it is a line that has shaped, and refined, my understanding of the transformative power of reading outdoors that I return to often.  

“The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship,” Emerson observes. Reading in nature, practicing contemplation, is a form of worship for me. While outdoors, I’ll read, feel moved, then pause and consider an idea, often looking to God’s creation around me for answers. What does that flower tell me about human relationships? What does a stormy sky tell me about death and the afterlife? What does an insect tell me about poetry? 

Reading in nature helps us appreciate God’s handiwork from a different perspective, one wherein we bring others’ ideas in communion with our own. Moreover, it prepares our bodies and souls to meet the world — with all its complications, joys, and heartaches — with a sense of God’s presence as the background music steering our thoughts and decisions. 

Reading in nature is a lesson of worship. For me in particular, it is a continuation of my late friend’s legacy who appreciated God and nature in a way like no one else I have ever met, a friend who left the world a better place than she found it. 

Creators:
LuElla D'Amico
Published:
December 14, 2023
July 31, 2023
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